Who is feeding China?

Zhou Muzhi
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail Xinhua, November 15, 2023
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Editor's note: The Russia-Ukraine conflict has caused significant fluctuations in global food prices, bringing the issue of a potential food crisis back into the spotlight. In October 2023, Professor Zhou Muzhi from Tokyo Keizai University delivered a speech at the 4th World Shiology Forum in Haikou, Hainan province, where he addressed crucial questions such as "Who feeds the world?" and "Who is feeding China?" He also examined the paradoxes within global food trade and identified the regions in China with the most productive agricultural output. His speech also explored potential strategies for China to effectively tackle its food challenges in the future.

Who feeds the world?

About 50 years ago in 1972, the Club of Rome released a report titled "The Limits to Growth," issuing a warning about the global population explosion that had occurred after World War II. This report, which argued that the Earth could not support continuous population growth, garnered significant worldwide attention.

However, contrary to these warnings, over the past half-century, the global population has doubled due to sustained growth in Asia and Africa. Surprisingly, the issue of food supply has not spiraled into a crisis as predicted in that report. In fact, when it comes to the overall quantity of food produced, not only does it suffice to feed the current global population, but there is also a surplus.

So, who and what are responsible for the continuous growth in global food production? If we look at the data from the past 60-plus years, from 1961 to now, we can find that the global area of arable land for grain has increased by merely 14%. Expanding cultivated land has not been a significant factor. However, during this period, the global population has grown by 158%, while the total grain production has increased by a staggering 250%. It is the faster growth rate of grain production compared to the population growth rate that ensures the Earth can feed the growing population.

So, what has contributed to this continuous increase in global grain output. Since it is not the expansion of arable land, it must be the yield per unit of land. Over the past 60 years, global grain yields per unit have increased by 207%.

So, what has contributed to such a significant increase in per unit crop output? It includes substantial inputs of pesticides and fertilizers, the widespread adoption of agricultural infrastructures like irrigation and roads, the organization and mechanization of agriculture, and, of course, improved crop varieties and advancements in agricultural technology. All of these factors collectively are known as the "Green Revolution." It is the Green Revolution that has increased crop yields and enabled the Earth to support the vast population we have today.

The paradoxes of global food trade

The problem is, the Green Revolution, while increasing global food production, has exacerbated the disparity in agricultural productivity between developed and developing nations. The World Bank categorizes global economies into four groups: low income, lower middle income, upper middle income, and high income. According to studies by Cloud River Urban Research Institute, countries with higher incomes tend to exhibit higher agricultural productivity. This has resulted in a staggering 49-fold difference in agricultural productivity between high-income and low-income countries. The Green Revolution has transformed agriculture from a sector reliant on natural factors into one that requires significant capital and technological investments. Only countries capable of making substantial agricultural investments can achieve high returns. This is something we need to look into when addressing global food challenges.

The disparity in food production capacity between the Global North and the Global South has led to a surprising phenomenon — developed countries exporting food to developing nations. Currently, the largest agricultural exporter in the world is the United States, followed by the Netherlands at third place and Germany at fourth place. Meanwhile, the largest agricultural importer is China. Many of the developing countries represented at today's World Shiology Forum are purely reliant on food imports. The advantage in agricultural trade depends not only on natural factors like arable land, soil, and climate but also significantly on agricultural productivity.

For developing countries with lower agricultural productivity, food imports partially help alleviate hunger, but at the same time, the influx of cheap agricultural products can undermine and even devastate their own agricultural sectors. Currently, nearly 800 million people worldwide face hunger issues, predominantly in countries with low agricultural productivity that are also vulnerable to food dumping by developed nations. Many African countries are typical examples of nations suffering from this situation.

Who will feed China?

In 1995, American scholar Lester Russel Brown published a report titled "Who Will Feed China?" raising a sharp question about who would feed China's large population and pointing out that China's massive food demand could threaten global food supply.

This report garnered much attention from the Chinese government at the time. However, in hindsight, China's food supply did not encounter major issues. Today, China is nearly self-sufficient when it comes to essential foods, particularly rice and wheat.

So, who is feeding China? If we look at the data over the past 60-plus years since 1961, China's grain cultivation area has only increased by 12%, and land reclamation has not contributed significantly to increased food production. During this period, China's population has grown by 118%. Thanks to the Green Revolution, China's food production has increased by 491%, significantly outpacing the rate of population growth.

Throughout this period, relative to per unit global grain yields, which increased by 207%, China's per unit grain yields increased by 430%, a much higher improvement compared to the global average. In other words, China is one of the top performers of the Green Revolution. However, the heavy reliance on pesticides and fertilizers has led to significant environmental pollution, soil contamination, and health hazards that remain serious issues even today.

In 1960, China had the lowest per capita daily calorie intake, but today, this number is 2.3 times higher than that in that year. Domestic staple foods have fed China, which is a remarkable achievement.

The world's largest importer of animal feed grains

Having enough to eat is not the only concern; the quality of food matters too. For Chinese people, good food often means meat. A Chinese consumes 62 kilograms of meat per year, significantly surpassing the global average of 42 kilograms and even exceeding Japan's 54 kilograms. Since China's reform and opening-up policies, meat production has surged nearly eightfold. From this perspective, it's fair to say that Chinese people are enjoying a diverse and rich diet.

However, the production of meat in China heavily relies on imported animal feed grains. As I mentioned earlier, China stands as the world's largest importer of agricultural products, with a particular emphasis on feed grains like soybeans, corn, sorghum, and barley. For example, China's soybean imports constitute nearly 80% of the global total, with 60% of these imports originating from Brazil and 32% from the United States. Similarly, China's corn imports account for nearly 22% of the world's total, with 72% sourced from the United States and 26% from Ukraine, despite the ongoing conflict in the latter.

One major issue in agricultural trade revolves around price fluctuations, especially when conflicts and disputes, such as the Russia-Ukraine conflict, impact grain trade. Developing countries often bear the brunt of these price swings. It's noteworthy that during the Russia-Ukraine conflict, many African leaders embarked on diplomatic missions to Ukraine and Russia, seeking mediation to resolve the conflict swiftly to ensure a stable grain supply for their nations.

Which region in China boasts the highest agricultural productivity?

What should China do to address its food security challenges in the future? For the time limit, I'll offer just two recommendations. In China, there are 297 cities at the prefecture level or above, and Cloud River Urban Research Institute has conducted a comparative analysis of agricultural productivity in these cities. This productivity is measured by GDP of the primary sector per unit of arable land. We found out that the top 30 cities in China with the highest agricultural productivity are as follows: Sanming, Longyan, Fuzhou, Ningde, Zhoushan, Shantou, Nanping, Zhangzhou, Leshan, Lishui, Maoming, Putian, Chaozhou, Changsha, Zhuzhou, Sanya, Taizhou, Zhaoqing, Haikou, Bazhong, Danzhou, Pingxiang, Hangzhou, Shaoxing, Ningbo, Huangshan, Jieyang, Quanzhou, Guangzhou, and Foshan. Interestingly, all of them are located in the southern part of China. Among these, cities like Fuzhou, Changsha, Haikou, Hangzhou, and Guangzhou are economically prosperous metropolitan areas.

As I mentioned earlier, the North-South disparity in agricultural productivity is a result of the Green Revolution, where regions capable of making substantial investments in funds and technology outperform others. The ranking of agricultural productivity clearly illustrates that this phenomenon is highly noticeable in China as well. While climate, land resources, water resources, and crop varieties also play roles in determining agricultural productivity, it's crucial not to overlook the fact that southern cities have more significant resources to invest in agriculture compared to their northern counterparts.

On the flip side, this implies that there is significant room for increasing rural income and agricultural production in northern China. Using what I call the concept of the "New Green Revolution," which emphasizes smart, technology-driven methods over excessive reliance on pesticides and fertilizers, agriculture in China's northern areas can thrive.

Although China has achieved self-sufficiency in staple foods, it still needs to substantially increase the production of animal feed grains to reduce pressure and dependence on global food trade. Therefore, I recommend investing heavily to transform agriculture into a high-tech industry characterized by high yields, high quality, and high returns. More importantly, through the New Green Revolution, we can ensure that the Chinese people have enough to eat but also eat safely and healthily.

Prioritizing develop-for-import policy

Twenty-five years ago, I was involved in an international cooperation project that stretched across the Eurasian continent, which was then known as the "Eurasian Land Bridge" concept. After the Cold War, substantial resources in Central Asia became accessible for exploitation. We proposed a collaboration between China and Japan to construct a railway and oil and gas pipelines across the Eurasian continent, facilitating the transportation of energy and grain from Central Asia to Shanghai and Lianyungang. These resources would then be shared with other East Asian countries like Japan and South Korea.

This initiative garnered favorable responses from both governments and received endorsements from the then Chinese and Japanese leaders. On April 1, 1999, I published an article titled "Euroasian land bridge carries great promise" on Nikkei, introducing the project to the world.

Despite China primarily being an exporter of grain and energy at the time, we foresaw that China's rapid development would eventually make it the world's largest importer of these commodities. Pitifully, Japan withdrew from the project for various reasons. Nevertheless, China built upon this project and developed the west-to-east gas transmission plan. Initially, the pipeline was constructed domestically before being gradually extended into Central Asia. Today, the Belt and Road Initiative has transformed the idea of a railway and oil and gas pipelines spanning the Eurasian continent into reality.

One key concept within the original proposal was "develop-for-import policy." We believed that whether in grain or energy trade, the primary challenge was how to minimize volatility. The concept of "develop-for-import policy" meant that both importing and exporting countries would invest together, engaging in long-term cooperation for mutual benefit and stability.

I am pleased to observe that many projects under the Belt and Road Initiative operate with this "develop-for-import" mindset. Among the friends present today from more than 40 countries, some come from grain-importing nations, while others represent exporting countries. I hope that you can work together around this concept and genuinely address the challenge in global food supply.

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